The continuity of surveillance

Digital technology has enabled surveillance to become a timeless record of both public and private data. Solove (cited in Baruh & Soysal 2010, p.398) contends that “the digital revolution (along with enhanced storage capacity) makes it increasingly difficult for our society to forget and move on, making it almost impossible for individuals to have a second chance”. Whilst the dominant discourse appears to be that users don’t mind their data being shared today, the question should be raised as to whether they are content with this data being accessed many years into the future? Such a system does not forgive the individual for making the retrospective “mistakes” of a once youthful party lifestyle. Employers need only use Google or Facebook to anonymously profile a candidate and make an often unjust conviction. This type of discrimination is restricted by laws in everyday life and traditional media yet the anonymity of new media allows for such a possibility. Even without definitive evidence that employees are having their digital lives stalked and scrutinised the fact that it’s possible creates a Panoptic situation. Foucault (1979, p.204) defined the Panopticon as “a privileged place for experiments on men, and for analysing with complete certainty the transformations that may be obtained from them”. Therefore, surveillance, as a form of social control, only requires the possibility of someone watching as the suspect becomes their own overseer (Caluya 2010, p. 625). Digital surveillance is an extension of Foucault’s watchtower theory as it presents the possibility of someone not only watching you right now but watching you in the future and knowing your history as it is defined by your digital interactions.

Who’s Watching Whom?: Surveillance Practices, Problems, and Processes

Whilst this may appear to be the stuff of science fiction or part of a Hollywood movie such as the aptly named Conspiracy Theory (1997), modern technology has made persistent surveillance possible at a global scale. One such program taking advantage of this technology is the NSA’s (National Security Agency) PRISM which allegedly provides US security agents direct access to user data from companies such as Apple, Facebook and Google (Greenwald, 2014). So much of everyday life is recorded on the servers of social networks and other digital services. “In recent years, social media [networks] have become an important avenue for self-expression. At the same time, the ease with which individuals disclose their private information has added to an already heated debate about the privacy implications of interactive media.” (Baruh, L & Soysal, L 2010, p.392).

In a digital society that encourages a public identity, and one that is often very carefully constructed, very little concern is had for those that may be watching. The dominant discourse appears to be that digital consumers are content with others watching. Gates and Magnet (2007, p. 277) suggest that the issue of surveillance has become a concern of journalists, civil libertarians and scholars. However, the majority of social network users appear to broadcast themselves openly to the wider public. This could be attributed to the fact that it’s easier to not be concerned with issues of privacy in a digital world that encourages sharing every bit of information. Social networks and other digital services are built on a system that requires users to relinquish their content rights in order to operate. Perhaps it’s not so much that users are ignorant then as they have been given no other alternative. In any case, more criticism is needed to address the issue of legacy data and the continuity of digital surveillance.

Edit: I’ve written a follow up piece in reflection of my digital surveillance research. Read it here: Privacy and digital surveillance.


Baruh, L & Soysal, L 2010, ‘Public intimacy and the new face (book) of surveillance: the role of social media in shaping contemporary dataveillance’, in T Dumova & R Fiordo (eds), Handbook of Research on Social Interaction Technologies and Collaboration Software: Concepts and Trends, Information Science Reference, Hershey, pp. 392–403, Deakin Univ Library’s Catalog, EBSCOhost, retrieved 17 August 2014.

Caluya, G 2010, ‘The post-panoptic society? Reassessing Foucault in surveillance studies’, Social Identities, vol. 16, no. 5, September, pp. 621–633, SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost, retrieved 17 August 2014.

Conspiracy Theory 1997, film, Silver Pictures, New York City.

Foucault, M 1979, ‘Panopticism’ in Discipline And Punish: The Birth Of The Prison / Michel Foucault; Translated From The French By Alan Sheridan, New York, Vintage, Vintage Books, pp. 195–228, Deakin Univ Library’s Catalog, EBSCOhost, retrieved 17 August 2014.

Gates, K and Magnet, S 2007, ‘Communication research and the study of surveillance’, The Communication Review, vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 277–293, retrieved 17 August 2014, <>.

Greenwald, G 2014, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, [e-book], Metropolitan Books, available through: Google Scholar,, accessed 12 August 2014.

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